Panther Creek junior goalie Celeste Barnard had a feeling Saturday’s N.C. High School Athletic Associaion 4A second-round playoff game against Holly Springs was going to be one of the hardest tests of the season for the unbeaten Catamounts.
Holly Springs was the lone team to play Panther Creek to a tie earlier in the year, and during the first half Saturday it looked as if the Golden Hawks could potentially break the game open with several shots on goal.
Still, Barnard stopped everything kicked her way, posting seven of her nine saves in the first half, and the Catamounts remained undefeated with a 3-0 shutout over Holly Springs.
Panther Creek (20-0-1) advanced to the third round of playoffs and will host West Johnston on Tuesday.
Holly Springs finished the season 14-5-2. The Hawks, who didn’t suffer a loss until their eleventh game, have reached the second round the past three seasons.
Brianna Velasquez, Lindsey Haney and Justin James each scored for the Catamounts. Velasquez’ goal came 8:19 before halftime, while Haney scored midway through the second off a corner kick and then assisted James with 5:33 left in the contest.
“They’re a very strong team,” said Barnard, a Middle Tennessee State recruit. “It’s not easy being undefeated because we know they’re all coming out wanting to beat us.”
Panther Creek controlled the ball for the majority of the second half, but the first 40 minutes featured numerous scoring chances for both teams.
The Golden Hawks nearly scored five minutes in when senior Dominique Babbitt booted a free kick that hit the crossbar. Then in the span of two minutes, Barnard thwarted three potential goals from close range with diving saves.
“Tonight Panther Creek just finished their opportunities a bit better than we did,” said Holly Springs head coach Brian Miller. “This is the best year in our school’s history and I’ll be sad to see these girls go. I came here when these seniors were freshmen and I’ve watched them improve every year and really put this program on the map.”
Babbitt and classmate K.J. Vollrath expressed how the team felt like a family and meant so much to their development as they helped the Hawks program grow. The Hawks will also graduate goalie Bailey Ulm (six saves), Megan Howard, Taylor and Kelly Forbis, Emily Miller, Jennie Lugten and Olivia Bloom.
Panther Creek head coach David Grant counted on three things: his team’s fitness, defense, and of course Barnard.
“We’re very good defensively, and if we do get beat, it’s nice to know we have a keeper like Celeste back there,” Grant said. “We knew Holly Springs was going to come out strong, but for our defenders to take on those seniors they have and to hold their own is quite an accomplishment.
“Last year we spent a lot of time on the importance of fitness, so this year it’s paid off and I know we have girls who can give it their all for eighty minutes.”